Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
Isaiah 58:1-11; Sirach 28:1-7
“Give me tears, O God, as once Thou gavest them to the woman that had sinned, and count me worthy to wash Thy feet that have delivered me from the way of error. As sweet-smelling ointment let me offer Thee a pure life, created in me by repentance; and may I also hear those words for which I long: “Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace.”
And so, brothers and sisters, we begin again. How astonishing that as we approach Great and Holy Lent we are called not simply to come before the Holy and Almighty One to make our confession, but to come before each other. Like David, we acknowledge “before Thee, thee only have I sinned.” Yet our sins are also against each other, for every sin affects the body of Christ, and not only the particular one whom we have hurt or insulted. The West shows its penitence before the Lord in the forehead-crosses of Ash Wednesday. But Orthodoxy demands that we make our repentance verbally public, by beginning Great Lent with a formal confession and offer of repentance among all our brothers and sisters. The reconciliation is both horizontal, (“Brother or Sister, forgive me!”) and vertical (“God forgives and so do I!”) As we do this, we dramatize and actualize that marvelous statement in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The epistle reading for this Sunday, Romans 13:11-14:4, calls us to a sober estimate of life, and instructs us not to pass judgment upon one another, while we deliberately cast off the works of darkness.
Brethren, salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.
Effectively, the apostle tells us, “remember who you are and Whose you are!” This involves a commitment to a godly lifestyle, with some don’ts (don’t be drunk, crude, loose, grasping or nasty) and a big “do”: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”. Moreover, where there are disagreements concerning the contours of the Christly ascetic life, don’t dwell on them—those who are more rigorous must not look down others, and vice versa. In the long run, such things don’t matter, and these things are between each person and God. (Just an aside here: the instruction “not to judge” is not an absolute one. In other places, Jesus says that we are to “make right judgments,” and in 1 Corinthians Paul instructs the Church to judge the actions of the incestuous brother, for his own good. Paul’s words here are very specific, referring to a critical and haughty attitude, in which we style ourselves better than other Christians. He is NOT telling us that we should be tolerant of evil or self-destructive behavior in our midst, or to let on that everything goes!) The passage then ends in great optimism: “God is able to make your brother (or sister) stand.” Great is the mystery of faith: the Holy Spirit enables us to put on Christ, yet we also act. God gives us the dignity to co-operate with Him, turning us more and more into solid, real people who can stand.
At this point in the letter to the Romans, the apostle has laid out the gospel, shown the faithfulness of God in Christ Jesus, and mediated tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians, reminding the Gentiles that they should not boast over their ethnically Jewish brothers and sisters, for they have been grafted “against nature” into the vine that is God’s own people. He has reassured them that both Jews and Gentiles belong to the family, and anticipated the time when all will be reconciled in Christ. Then in chapter twelve, he now gets down to the knitty-gritty. And so will we, as we enter Great Lent. It is helpful for us to take St. Paul’s warning that the daylight is coming, that Christ may come at any time, and we should be ready. We are to remember that we belong to the Light, and must therefore continually cast aside the works of darkness, for we are tempted in this dark world. This is the time to take care of our own flaws, not the faults of others, as we remember frequently in the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.
A well-known Old Testament reading helps to fill out and underscore the apostle’s teaching about the meaning of a true fast, and its interconnection with repentance. Isaiah the prophet speaks for the Almighty:
“Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 `Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.11 And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. (Isa 58:1-11 RSV)
A true fast, then, is inward and active, not simply a matter of abstaining from things. It is a fast that shows true humility and re-orientation towards the Lord, by one’s actions towards those in need. For the Christian community, the story of the Jewish people stands as a cautionary tale: the most religious among them fasted two times a week, as we do. But this sacrifice was not pleasing to God when it did not bring forth fruit of compassion and love towards others. As St. Paul laments, many of his own people, the Jews, “sought to establish their own righteousness,” rather than looking to God’s faithfulness, and recognizing the time when He came among them in Christ. God asks us to consider what a true fast is, and uses rhetorical questions to make us see things as they really are. Will you call it a fast unto the Lord when you are not following in God’s ways? Instead, strive to act like the Lord himself, and your righteousness will be like the dawn. This is not a matter of working to get God’s favor or attention. It is a matter of the reality of things. True repentance brings forth actions that mirror God himself, and opens the door for our healing. When we turn to the Lord (which is what repentance means, “to turn around”), then the Lord heals us, waters us like a newly growing garden, makes our light shine. As Jesus says, when someone comes to Him, out of them living water shall spring, the living water of the Holy Spirit who then will help others. We are caught up in the life-giving action of God himself: and those waters “do not fail!”
All this begins and continues with the wonder of repentance and forgiveness. And so it is right that we begin this season of fasting and reorientation towards the Sun of righteousness with acts of repentance and forgiveness. Our gospel reading, St. Matthew 6:14-21, reminds us of how forgiveness works:
The Lord said to His Disciples: If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father Who is in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
We remind ourselves of these truths daily, don’t we, with the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others.” This was such an important lesson that the Lord embeds it in the prayer, teaches it in our gospel reading for this Sunday, tells his disciples to forgive enumerable times (70 times 7), and even tells a parable about the man who was forgiven but refused to forgive. When we don’t forgive, we do not have the ability to receive true forgiveness. As the Psalter puts it, “deep calls to deep”—but an unforgiving heart is as shallow as they come, and cannot see reality. Its repentance can only be perfunctory, not true, or it would recognize the weakness and vulnerability of others, and forgive them, too. I used to think that forgiveness was only for those who repented, and to justify this, I referred to Jesus’ words, “if your brother sins against you and comes and asks your forgiveness.” But perfect love does not even require this, does it? Our Lord forgave those who had crucified him, even before they asked pardon, for they had no idea of the enormity of their sin. Of course, reconciliation remains a two-way street: the other must want to be reconciled. But forgiveness is a blessed gift that we can offer even if it is not accepted—at least, at first. Who knows what miracle the Lord may do, in time, in that person’s life, perhaps because they have heard humble and loving words from one of us?
The wisdom of Sirach underscores Jesus’ teaching on this subject, reasoning with us about the true nature of forgiveness:
He who revenges shall find vengeance from the Lord, and he will surely keep his sins in remembrance.2 Forgive your neighbor the hurt that he has done to you, so that your sins also be forgiven when you pray.3 One man bears hatred against another, and does he seek pardon from the Lord?4 He shows no mercy to a man, who is like himself: and does he ask forgiveness of his own sins?5 If he who is merely flesh nourishes hatred, who will entreat for pardon of his sins? 6 Remember your end, and let enmity cease; remember corruption and death, and abide in the commandments. 7 Remember the commandments, and bear no malice to your neighbor: remember the covenant of the Highest, and overlook ignorance. (Sirach 28:1-7)
This instruction, like that of Isaiah, also uses rhetorical questions to help us to see the absurdity of expecting forgiveness while harboring malice towards others. “You bear hatred against somebody, and ask pardon from God? If you, who are not holy, foster hatred, then how can you really expect forgiveness? You have shown you do not really understand your own sinfulness, your own fragile condition, the ‘end,’ or judgment, which naturally should come your way.” Instead, we are reminded of God’s goodness in giving us his word, told to remember his covenant towards sinful people, and to overlook ignorance in others, who may not even know as much as we do. This is hard. It is easy to assume the worst—to assume that someone is being deliberately hateful, or neglectful, or inconsiderate. At the same time, it is easy to excuse myself: I was tired, I wasn’t myself, look at the hard circumstances that I was facing.
To look to God, to his Word, to his promises, is to make an end both of harsh accusations of others, and false excusing of myself. It is to turn away from myself, and away from my perhaps inaccurate assessment of others, towards the creator who made us, and before whom each of us will stand. And there is more. Sometimes we manage to forgive someone who has harmed us or a loved one. Then, months later, years later, we realize that the injury was much worse than we had thought. Yet again, we must forgive them, for not only was their sin done in ignorance, but our forgiveness was not yet complete, for we did not know the extent of what we were forgiving. In every act of clemency, let us remember that the real burden of pain was born not by us, or by our loved one who was harmed, but by God the Son, who took on all our infirmities, though he himself was without sin. He has forgiven, even those who had not yet repented, for “they did not know what they were doing.” If he has done this, what right have we to refuse?
Joseph the patriarch, if anybody, had a reason to harbor resentment. Sold into slavery, where he suffered much unjustly, he came eventually to have the upper hand over his brothers, who thought they had destroyed them. They were not even repentant until they realized his power over them, and were understandably terrified. But Joseph had learned much in his ordeal, and realized that revenge was not his to have. To his brothers, who had been sobered up by the situation, and not by their own compunction, he said, “”Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he reassured them and comforted them. (Gen 50:19b-21)
Even the evil that people do to us can be used by God for good—this is quite amazing, showing that God is not only the one who repairs damage, but can turn it to good. We might think of a master embroiderer, who, faced with an unwanted knot in her work, turns it into the centerpiece of a great design. And this is, of course, what the worst of human actions, the crucifixion, became. He trampled down death by death.
It is to this great climax of our story that we hasten in the coming weeks. We begin with confession and repentance, knowing that we are only taking a first feeble step, and will have to repeat this treatment again and again as we come to spiritual health. As we enter Forgiveness Vespers, let us remember that this is no mere ritual, no mere sign of our frailty. For our sins, though done mostly against God, and sometimes specifically against one or a few friends, make their impact upon all our brothers and sisters. I may not have actually committed a personal sin against one from whom I am asking repentance. Perhaps I never harbored evil thoughts, or said something unkind, or hurt that person. But they are part of Christ’s body, and are affected nonetheless by my faithlessness and weakness. And so I ask, “Forgive me, brother and sister!” That action is made all the more significant by the gift that we have from God himself. For we are the inheritors of that covenant that he made through Jesus Christ, prophesied by Jeremiah:
This is the covenant that I will make with them… says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:33-34 RSV)
Our asking forgiveness from each other is the deepest sign that we “know the LORD,” from the least to the greatest. God has forgiven, and will forgive, and he will give us the grace to do this, as well. To know Him is to act as he does. Let us remember the sins of others no more, and enter this season in holy sobriety. And if, having forgiven someone, we realize that there was more harm than we had originally thought, that the sinful deed or word is bringing forth more pain, let us forgive again and again—only then can we participate in the Holy One’s triumph over evil. May it be our joy to say, like Joseph, “it was meant to me for evil, but God has turned it to good.”
Thy grace hath risen, O Lord, the illumination of our souls hath shone forth. Lo, now is the acceptable time; the season of repentance hath come. Let us cast down the works of darkness, and put on the works of light, that we may pass the great tempest of fasting and reach the summit of the third-day Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls. (Aposticha)